Sunday, August 20, 2006

A "Review" of Wikipedia

This summer I have become a bit of a Wikipedia addict. For now, I won't get into why, despite some reservations about credibility, I sometimes get distracted from important work by the desire to look up articles about interesting musicians, not so famous writers, and esoteric ideas. Suffice it to say that I often start to look up something I want or need information about and end up reading for hours.

But something has come up over and over as I read that has bothered me more than a little. This is the problem of including in the external links section of many articles, particularly those on contemporary and modern poets, links to what are supposed to be "reviews" or "critiques" of work by these writers. The issue may be one of simple semantics. However noting the discrepancy between critical analysis and criticizing is really important because those who are likely to make use of such links are probably going to be high school and college students, many of whom do not know the difference.

In terms of literature and other arts, the word criticism concern close reading (or observing) so that finer details (hopefully significant ones) and important, thematic connections are noted. Admittedly this is a realm that is not popular, particularly since it is rather foreign to most young students and unimportant to most of them or any other person except to professors whose life work seems to revolve around these writers. However, the rest of the world usually hears the word criticism only in its negative context: at best a list of flaws in a particular work; at best a bunch of reasons it doesn't live up to one's particular tastes. But literary criticism is not always critical in the same sense.

A review can be critical, and many publications contain reviews that incorporate critical analysis. However a review is usually a way or recommending one either buy the book (or go to the movie or listen to a cd) or avoid the same based on criteria that are usually matters of personal taste. I've never met a reviewer that didn't claim to have good taste or high standards. There are reviewers who are able to set aside their personal tastes to recommend something that might appeal to other people (I'm reminded of Roger Ebert giving thumbs up to some children's movies that he only enjoyed nominally because he thought that children would like them.) And reviews come in many different tones, from the snooty, supposedly highbrow voice of one who speaks as if she/he is the harbinger of good art to the angry voice of one who cannot tolerate anything outside his/her limited experience (I have in mind the many, whining reviews of jazz albums on websites devoted to heavy metal. Why bother?). This latter is a form of snootiness.

Not all reviews or reviewers are snots, but we do have to keep in mind that a review is about two things: taste and value. A good movie reviewer is not just telling you why he/she thinks you should or should not see a movie, often using his/her personal viewing experience as a guide, but also because one can only see so many movies, and it costs quite a bit to go to the theater. (At least it does for someone like me.)

Okay, so what does this have to do with Wikipedia? Well, the problem is that many of the "reviews" or "critiques" found in the external links section of articles about poets are not reviews or literary criticism at all, but mean-spirited, sometimes personal attacks by writer/reviewer/poet Dan Schneider from the This Old Poem section (called TOPs) of his website. Here Schneider picks apart one or more poems by a poet he has taken a great deal of time and energy to hate, usually working to revise the poem to, presumably, make it better. He uses a scoring system to eventually demonstrate how his version of the poem is of greater quality.

Look, I must admit that despite my own differences between his tastes or values and mine, Schneider has some important things to say about the state of contemporary poetry. While it might make me feel squeamish to have him attack poets I happen to like, it is fair for someone who loves poetry to expect writers to work harder than they often do and not produce mediocre work. It does appear, in the more reasonable arguments, that Schneider's war is really with two things, the mediocre and a publishing industry that produces what Donald Hall calls the
McPoem. I happen to value poetry, and so I, guardedly, applaud Mr. Schneider's effort and energy, if not his presentation.

But these are not, as I said, reviews. Many of these pieces are really personal attacks on the writers themselves and often use words like "stupid" or "boring" in the way a college freshman uses them to describe a textbook he has had to read. In what seems to be an attempt to be honest with his readers, Schneider relates a story of the writer in question, sometimes telling how that writer has been rude or unkind to him (he seems to take a lot personally). Some of these tales, perhaps unwittingly, show Schneider as a person who enjoys being a jerk. And while parts of these "reviews" fairly demonstrate where he thinks these poems stand up or fail, many just are just complaints.

Let me make a few things clear. Dan Schneider has every right to write and publish/post what he thinks about poets and poems. EVERY RIGHT. And as I stated before, he makes good points now and then, points that not only deserve, but need, attention. But they are not reviews, and Wikipedia should seriously consider dropping them. I suspect that unless Wikipedia better evaluates such things, the rift between students and the academic world will only widen, a problem Wikipedia should be concerned about.

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